Thanksgiving comes into our lives in different ways. Sometimes thanksgiving is an exhale and a sense of relief. I made it through! We’re finished with that! Each of us is faces a crisis or challenge now and then: financially, in our families, at work, among our friends, at school, with our health, or in our city, state or nation. We go through the event, the challenge, the crisis and come out of it with a feeling of relief. We exhale.
Embedded in that exhale is exhalation. Relief swells up in us and joy returns like and old friend we have not seen for awhile. We have a genuine feeling of gratitude.
Such is the exaltation, the thanksgiving in the first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures from the prophet Joel. A grasshopper plague has consumed the land and the harvest has been destroyed. After hardship and loss, starvation and sorrow, the insects have now left. Life is coming back. There is an exhale of joy as people sense fresh hope. Those who have fled the famine are called back. Let us give thanks. We have made it through.
Tonight as we give thanks, let us recall those times when we’ve made it through, exhaling as we say “thank God,” for as individuals and as part of a community we have been through many different challenges, crises, and pivotal events this season and year. As we find our way through things, we rejoice with thanksgiving.
This kind of thanksgiving breeds compassion as its virtue. The lesson it teaches us is a tenderness of heart for those who have faced similar situations. We know what it is like. Cancer survivors, for example, may become deeply involved with caring for those going through the hardship of this disease.
A different kind of thanksgiving comes not when we exhale. This kind of thanksgiving is built on the rhythm of pause and perspective. Normally our lives are so filled with the constant flow of things that we hardly pay attention the deeper reasons or themes of the life we are leading, or the value of the things we have received, or the pattern our life reveals, or how life itself is assembled, or the ways in which our lives have gone well. We just live life, usually without thinking about it much.
Yet once in awhile we pull up short and think about things. We occasionally decide to pause, to stop living and doing, so that we can think about what we are living and doing. That is what Sabbath, worship, meditation and prayer are about. These things are pauses that give birth to perspective. When we pause, and when we think about things, we become aware of the blessings we have received, the underpinnings of life, all of those things listed in the litany this evening, some of those things in this evening’s second lesson, and the force for good behind it all.
Thanksgiving in the United States is a time when we as a people pause in our life together to get a perspective on things. When we do that each year as a nation, or each week in church, or on occasion at special festivals, or daily in our prayer time, we gain perspective. We become thankful for the life we have received: the blessings of a good nation, the fullness of an abundant life, good friends, the gift of forgiveness, and the blessings of a graceful God. This is the kind of thanksgiving that is found in I Timothy, the thanksgiving that comes with pause and perspective.
This kind of thanksgiving breeds contemplation as its virtue. The lesson it teaches us is to Sabbath well, to reflect on our lives in a regular rhythm, to take breaks so that we can see where we are headed rather than to just rush on.
In her book Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr (Sorin Books, 2008) uses the medieval monastic hours of prayer to shape a contemporary life centered on pauses during the day to become aware of oneself and God. She outlines seven of these pauses that give a perspective on daily living and depth to one’s life. This thanksgiving day, take some time to reflect on the blessings of life and who is behind them. Then recommit yourself to a Sabbath sense in daily prayer, weekly worship, and festival celebration.
Sometimes there is another kind of thanksgiving. This is not the thanksgiving of the exhale and exultation that breeds compassion. Nor is it the thanksgiving of the rhythm of pausing to reflect that breeds contemplation. This thanksgiving is something much more delicate. This third thanksgiving is a construction of a vision for the good life as we find our way through hardship. Now and then life comes at us with a great deal of overwhelming fury. There are many times when that exhale seems far away if not impossible. We are so disturbed that reflection is not possible. Sometimes for a long time, nothing seems to go our way. Sometimes it seems that life is just one struggle after another.
It is precisely here, in the midst of struggle, the pain, the woe, that we meet not the God of great abundance, but the God named Jesus who emptied himself and walks with us through life shadows. Here, in the valley of shadows, we discover Jesus helping us to see our suffering in a different way, helping us gain the vision we need to make it through this. In the sorrow, accompanied by Jesus, we find an ironic blessing and a delicate thanksgiving.
These beatitudes in the last lesson form the backbone of such a thanksgiving. They remind us that we are blessed in, with, under and through all our laments. Blessed are those who mourn. They will find comfort. Blessed are the poor. For in both physical and spiritual poverty we draw close to the humble God who emptied himself for others. Blessed are we when we are persecuted, for that is how we discover the character of a prophet buried deep inside each one of us. This delicate construction of the good life based not on obvious blessing but on survival transformed is a kind of thanksgiving that one also encounters in life.
The other day I was talking with a woman who needed a conversation. She was a long way from feeling the joy of abundant blessings. She faced many struggles ahead, but she unburdened her heart. She began to feel the ironic hope that dwells deep in our human spirit. She began to find her joy through the lament. She started the conversation in tears. She ended it with a laugh and a recollection of how far she had come. The funny thing is I said hardly three words through the whole conversation. All she needed to construct her own delicate thanksgiving was a space to rebuild her sense of thankfulness and gumption for the hard road ahead.
This kind of thanksgiving breeds not compassion as its virtue, nor contemplation as its virtue, but confidence. The lesson of the thanksgiving of the beatitudes teaches us the capacity to keep going, an ironic fearlessness as we approach the difficulties ahead, and a gumption that allows us to go on.
Sometimes thanksgiving is an exhale: an exaltation of praise that comes at the end of a journey. Sometimes it is the fruit of pausing for perspective hourly, daily, weekly, or yearly, as we discover we have much to be thankful for. Sometimes thanksgiving comes in suffering as we meet a God who transforms us along life’s way. No matter what your thanksgiving this year, we are called to the various virtues of compassion, contemplation and courage as we encounter this God who loves and who walks with us all along the way.